Positive new challenges for the CMOs of today

New tools, technologies, market dynamics and an expanding remit are increasing the pressure on chief marketing officers, but gearing them up for promotion. Includes interviews with TalkTalk, ERM, Direct Line and Deloitte.

· TheTimes x Raconteur

The role of the chief marketing officer (CMO), and indeed of marketing itself, has been under debate for years. Is it more art or more science? Does it warrant a seat at the top table or is it just a sales-support function? Is it a strategic role or is it ultimately just about advertising and communications, or colouring in, as many have put it? Marketing and its leaders have been suffering from a crisis of identity for years, but it seems that’s now coming to an end.

Consider the collision of forces hitting organisations over recent years. Rapid advancements in digital technology, fragmentation of channels and media, industry and category disruptions, an explosion of data, and growing political and economic turbulence. In the face of this perfect storm of uncertainty, the portfolio of capabilities and skillsets within a marketing function has had to expand significantly.


Jeff Dodds, TalkTalk’s managing director for mobile and former CMO of Virgin Media, comments: “If you go back five to ten years, for most organisations marketing tended to mean advertising, branding and design, marketing leaders tended to come from a creative path, and marketing rarely sat on the main operating board. Marketing leadership of today is more akin to that of a chief operating officer of a few years ago. It’s a much broader remit, often sits on the main operating board and, with the range of accountabilities in it, is a much more commercially relevant role.”

Today’s CMO needs to be as comfortable with data science, technology, econometrics and analytics as they are with agencies and creatives. They’re as likely to be accountable for go-to-market campaigns as they are proposition development, product and pricing, customer experience and customer strategy, churn management and loyalty, digital transformation, and developing innovation pipelines.

Mr Dodds adds: “It’s not that marketing has changed; if you go back to the original definition of marketing being about the seven Ps [product, price, place, promotion, people, process and physical evidence], that’s fundamentally what a CMO is grappling with today, it’s just taken a while for organisations to catch up and place all of those responsibilities under one leadership role, and that’s the CMO of today.”


Freddie Hospedales, global head of marketing at ERM, says: “I see the biggest challenge for a CMO as the demonstration of value to warrant appropriate investment. There’s still a perception that marketing is too difficult to quantify, hence it can be seen as less valuable than other functions. The priority not just next year, but continuously, is recognition of the strategic value marketing and brand management have on enterprise value.”

Today’s CMO needs to be as comfortable with data science, technology, econometrics and analytics as they are with agencies and creatives​.

According to Mark Evans, CMO at Direct Line Group: “In a world of exponential change it is increasingly difficult to know ‘what’ will be required to win over a typical two to five-year planning horizon. As a result, there needs to be an increasing emphasis upon the ‘how’. By that I mean developing an agile innovation capability in order to respond to whatever the ‘what’ is.

“CMOs need to figure out how to bring agile principles into the DNA of a cross-functional business. It’s all very well deploying agile in carve-out innovation labs, but the greater challenge and arguably bigger prize is to break free from traditional waterfall ways of working in the core business, and I believe this is the emerging challenge for CMOs to champion.”

Jason Warnes, marketing partner at Deloitte Digital, says: “The single biggest pressure facing CMOs in the boardroom in 2017 is to demonstrate an ability to respond to disruption and changing consumer expectations. CMOs must be agile and rapidly define, develop and launch new concepts or propositions, and have the analytical capabilities to assess and learn from them.”

This broader remit means the CMO role is much more closely aligned to the commercial agenda of the organisation, and its accountabilities have a much more tangible and direct impact on growth. This not only brings with it added pressure and scrutiny, but it is also putting CMOs in a credible position to move into general management. While historically it has been more common for a chief financial officer or chief operating officer to be the internal candidates for chief executive succession, the broader and more heavyweight nature of the CMO’s role is beginning to make them a viable contender.


Consequently, the path to a CMO role is also changing, with future CMOs likely to have a background beyond the traditional creative and communications routes. “Because it’s not all about whether you can make a great TV ad, you’re starting to see people coming into CMO roles from broader commercial disciplines, not necessarily from an ad agency or having worked in the marketing department on big brand campaigns. That is one skill, but it’s only one of many,” says Mr Dodds.

All this means the future CMO is far more commercial and multi-disciplined, and more of a general manager with a customer expertise than an advertising and communications specialist. And a general manager who can stitch together a diverse and complex portfolio of responsibilities and organisational capability to help their organisations respond to a continuing period of uncertainty, change and disruption.

This article originally appeared in a special report in The Times on 05 September 2016, and published online by Raconteur here.